Twenty years ago this April close to one million Rwandans were slaughtered by machetes, hand grenades and bullets in the swiftest and, perhaps, most savage genocide in modern history. Ten years ago, I co-wrote, directed, and produced the film Hotel Rwanda in an attempt to capture the horror, the world's avoidance of the slaughter, and, most of all, the heroism of a handful of Rwandans at the Milles Collines hotel in Kigali. The film was a critical success, and more importantly managed to inform and educate ordinary Americans about the genocide.
The film was initially well-received in Rwanda. In May 2005, I screened the film for Rwandan President Paul Kagame. I sat beside him as he and his wife, and most of Rwanda's parliament watched the movie. Afterward he leaned over to me and said the film had done much good around the world in exposing the horrors of the genocide. The next day I sat with him and discussed how the film might be used to stimulate investment and support for his country, and that evening I screened the film at Amahoro Stadium for some 10,000 people. It was the most emotional screening I have ever experienced. I spent close to an hour afterward accepting thanks and congratulations.
Two months later, all that changed. The film's real-life hero, Paul Rusesabagina, and the film itself, became the focus of a smear campaign by the Rwandan press and by politicians, including President Kagame. The reason was obvious. In his book, An Ordinary Man, Paul had begun to criticize Kagame's government, saying that the presidential election, in which Kagame received 90.5 percent of the vote, was not democratic and that President Kagame suppresses human rights in Rwanda. That criticism has since been echoed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and numerous International politicians, newspapers and reporters. In recent years, the criticism has grown, with reports of kidnappings and assassinations of political opponents across Africa, military intervention by the Rwandan Army in Congo, and suppression of all opposition inside Rwanda.
While he stifles all opposition, there is no question that Paul Kagame has transformed Rwanda from an impoverished sectarian state into a model of economic growth and modernization. This success has sparked much debate -- the highly successful African strongman who rules with an iron fist versus the liberal desire for Western democratic standards. Kagame has used his impressive achievements, (and the continuing guilt of the West) to mount a sophisticated International PR campaign to counter the accusations that he is a ruthless dictator.
Now Hotel Rwanda has once more become a target of this PR campaign. A recently released book, Inside the Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising True Story ... And Why it Matters Today, by Edouard Kayihura, a former Kagame official, claims to debunk the 'lies' in our film. What's surprising is that this book has suddenly appeared 10 years after the movie's release. It is, in fact, a rehash of the book Hotel Rwanda: Or the Tutsi Genocide as seen by Hollywood, published in Rwanda back when the vilification of Rusesabagina was at its height. That book was also authored by Kagame officials. I guess the latest book has been timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the genocide and renewed interest in the film.
I've spent a good part of my life in theater, film and television, and have learned to live with criticism, but accusations of 'lies' are a different matter, particularly about a film that I believe has shaped the understanding of millions of people about the Rwandan genocide. So let's set the facts straight.
We researched the Hotel Rwanda story thoroughly. I interviewed (and videotaped) scores of Milles Collines survivors, including current government officials. We screened the film to hotel survivors, Rwandan and foreign; to UN officials; to both the US and Rwandan Presidents. No one voiced a word of criticism.
Now, a decade on, this book has appeared and been noted in Newsweek and lauded in a Huffington Post blog. And with the power of Google, these attacks will fester on the search page like a Sharpie mustache scribbled on a portrait. What's funny, if it wasn't sad, is that many of the 'accusations' against Paul in the book are documented in the film. He did indeed charge some people for their rooms. He did drink with genocide perpetrators and barter with them for food. He tried to help his wife escape. Who wouldn't?
Frankly the book, its publication, and this 'veracity' debate is pathetic when considered in the context of the Rwandan catastrophe. I'd be happy to ignore it if it weren't for the accusation of 'Genocide Revisionism' in the book. Genocide Revisionism is all encompassing crime in Kagame's Rwanda. Human Rights Watch has this to say about the law:
As many Rwandans have discovered, disagreeing with the government or making unpopular statements can easily be portrayed as genocide ideology, punishable by sentences of 10 to 25 years. That leaves little political space for dissent.
I don't think I'll be back in Rwanda in the near future to sit and chat once more with President Kagame. I'll just let Hotel Rwanda, named as one of 100 most inspirational Films of All Time by the American Film Institute, speak for itself.
Terry George is an Oscar winning film maker, whose work has included, In the Name of the Father, The Boxer and Hotel Rwanda.